Monthly Archives: May 2020

Sunday Quiz – Little Critters

Dear Readers,

In the spirit of getting everyone involved again, this week I am dividing the quiz into two parts. The first is a gallop through some of the little mammals that live in the UK. All you need to do is to decide what they are on a multiple choice basis. Easy, eh!

In the second part, I’m looking at little (ish) critters from around the world. Can you match the  mammal to their home, and can you decide what species they are? They are examples of convergent evolution – they all spend time underground, and so they are all adapted for a burrowing life. Have fun, and as usual, answers in the comments (but if you don’t want to be influenced by those who answered before you, write your answers down first 🙂 #oldschool.

Part One

Here we go! Match the photo to the species (listed below). So, if you think Photo 1 is a hazel dormouse, your answer would be 1)h.

Photo One by By Peter Trimming -, CC BY 2.0,


Photo Two by Bouke ten Cate / CC BY-SA (


Photo Three by Danielle Schwarz / CC BY-SA (


Photo Four by Dunpharlain / CC BY-SA (


Photo Five by Peter Trimming from Croydon, England / CC BY (


Photo Six by Bj.schoenmakers / CC0


Photo Seven by Sandy Rae from Scotland, UK / CC BY (


Photo Eight by Soricida / CC BY-SA (


a) Edible dormouse (Glis glis)

b) Harvest mouse (Micromys minutus)

c) Brown rat (Rattus norvegicus)

d) Common shrew (Sorex araneus)

e) Red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)

f) Wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus)

g) Water vole (Arvicola amphibius)

h) Hazel dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius)

Part Two

So, here are some mammals from around the world – all of them are burrowing animals of some kind or another. After the photos, you’ll see a list of a) species, and b) geographical location.

So, if you think photo 9 is a meerkat from Vancouver Island, your answer would be 9)a)i.

NB – Two of the animals are from the same area, so there are only seven geographical answers.

I think this week’s quiz is particularly fiendish, so have a bash and see how you get on! Have fun!

Photo Nine by By François Trazzi. - François Trazzi., CC BY-SA 3.0,


Photo Ten by By Gunnar Ries - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 2.5,


Photo Eleven by Alina Fisher / CC BY (


Photo Twelve by © Hans Hillewaert


Photo Thirteen by By Charles J Sharp - Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0,


Photo Fourteen by By Karunakar Rayker - originally posted to Flickr as The Pika, CC BY 2.0,


Photo Fifteen by By The original uploader was Brian.gratwicke at English Wikipedia. - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY 2.5,


Photo Sixteen by By Jason Pratt - originally posted to Flickr as Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat, CC BY 2.0,


Here are the species:

a) Meerkat (Suricata suricatta)

b) Large-eared pika (Ochotona macrotis)

c) Rock cavy (Kerodon rupestris)

d) Black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus)

e) Vancouver Island marmot (Marmotta vancouverensis)

f) Alpine marmot (Marmota marmota)

h) Cape ground squirrel (Xerus inauris)

And here are the regions where you might find these creatures.

i) Vancouver Island, Canada

ii) Alpine Europe

iii) Australia

iv) US great plains

v) Eastern Brazil

vi) Mountain regions of Asia

vii) Southern Africa

viii) Southern Africa

All answers by 5 p.m. on Monday please, if you want to be marked (not compulsory of course!)




More Damselflies, a Dragonfly and Checking In

Large Red Damselflies (Pyrrhosoma nymphula)

Dear Readers, the blue damselflies are still flitting about the pond, but yesterday they were joined by these two large red damselflies (Pyrrhosoma nymphula). At first glimpse one might wonder what on earth they think they’re doing? However, as usual it all comes down to reproduction. The one on top is the male, and he is holding onto the female around the neck with some claspers at his tail end. He has mated with her, and she is trying to lay her eggs. Unfortunately, if another male comes along and muscles in on the act, the eggs that she lays will be fertilised by the interloper, not by the original partner. And so, he hangs on for grim death while she’s going about the business of launching the next generation.

The large red damselfly lays its eggs on floating vegetation, and the nymphs can take up to two years to reach maturity. They are not as large and ferocious as dragonfly larvae, so my tadpoles should be fine, but any little invertebrate critters had better watch out!

At one point a massive water skater approached the damselflies, no doubt aroused by all the commotion, and it looked to me as if the male yanked the female out of the water to safety. However, as she’s the same size as he is, I’m sure she had to cooperate.

It takes a lot of energy to stay in this position for any length of time, and I’m sure that it makes both male and female more vulnerable to predation, but I’m sure that it’s a worthwhile enterprise. They will only live for another day or so, but at least they will hopefully have surviving offspring to emerge on a spring morning in a couple of years’ time.

In other dragonfly-related news, a friend of mine found this beauty on her birdbath – she lives right beside Muswell Hill Playing Fields. This is a female broad-bodied chaser (Libellula depressa) – the males are bright blue, so it’s easy to tell the sexes.

Female broad-bodied chaser (Libellula depressa) Photo by Linda Alliston

The behaviour of this species rather reminds me of bird like the flycatcher – it will find a favourite, sunlit perch and return to it time and again, hawking for insects or, if it’s a male, flying out to chase off any rivals. The female is a bit too beefy to be clasped around the neck and so the male defends her when she’s laying her eggs by hovering near her. However, it could also be that this particular female has recently emerged, and is undergoing a period of maturation: newly emerged broad-bodied chasers can apparently spend 10-14 days away from the water, presumably learning how to hunt and avoiding the attention of males until they are mature enough to start egg-laying.

Photo One by By Noushka31 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Male broad-bodied chaser (Libellula depressa) (Photo One)

And, if there was ever an advert for having some water in your garden, the broad-bodied chaser is surely a good example. When my pond was first dug and filled in February 2010, I had no idea that in May I would be sitting beside it when a female of the species zipped into the garden and landed on my pendulous sedge. I could not believe that a creature that I had rarely seen in the wild had flown down the alley at the side of the house to find some water, and was now basking in the sun like some kind of tiny metallic goddess. Never was the phrase ‘if you build it, they will come’ more true. And the photograph of the female above shows that even a birdbath will do the trick!

And finally, today, I just wanted to see how we were all doing. Personally, I am still very up and down – I am frustrated that I still have no idea when we will be able to have a memorial service for Dad, I am missing my friends, and although the palaver of social distancing has become second nature to me, I fear that it is becoming a bit of an old story around these parts. What I don’t miss is the 6.30 a.m. commute, the sense of busy-ness for the sake of it, the crowds and the noise. Since the lockdown, I have walked out in nature pretty much every day. I have really noticed the comings and goings in the garden on a daily basis, and I have been around more to see the ephemeral visitors, like the damselflies and the blackcap on the playing fields. I am relaxing into the rhythm of the everyday, and it is good for my poor, battered old heart.

But how are you doing? What’s the state of the lockdown where you are? Have you been able to get what you need? What have been the good things, and what has caused you stress? I have been able to work, so I haven’t needed to worry about money, but I appreciate how lucky I am to be in that situation. My neighbours are lovely, but in other places that I’ve lived that hasn’t always been the case, and I can just imagine how disputes and problems can escalate when everyone is around, all the time, with no escape. We are all in the middle of a massive social experiment at the moment, and who knows what will have changed when we come out the other side?

Friday Book – ‘Crow Country’ by Mark Cocker

Dear Readers, for the next few weeks I thought I’d share some of my very favourite nature writing with you. There has been a real renaissance in the form in the UK over the past few years, and I there are many writers who have inspired me: Tim Dee, Richard Mabey, Roger Deakin, Kathleen Jamie, John Lister-Kaye, John Lewis-Stempel and Robert MacFarlane to name but a few. But the first writer who, for me, really captured the way that natural events can fill us with awe and a kind of fear, was Mark Cocker. In his book ‘Crow Country’, the opening pages describe the evening gathering of rooks and jackdaws as they prepare to fly to their roosts. First, they gather in the fields, and Cocker describes the sound of thousands of birds as they arrive:

The two species create deeply contrasting but perfectly integrated sounds. The rook’s voice is dark, earthly, coarse, tuneless. But in aggregate it possesses a beautiful and softly contoured evenness. The jackdaws meanwhile produce sharp-chipped lapidary notes, like the sweet strike of flint on flint, and in this flinty landscape nothing could be more appropriate. In fact, both rook and jackdaw calls seem to come from deep within the Earth, as if it were the valley itself celebrating the onset of night’.

And then, the birds rise from the field and fly to the trees, a vast corvid murmuration:

Tonight the flock blossoms as an immense night flower and, while beautiful and mysterious, it always stirs something edgy into my sense of wonder. It is the feeling that in viewing the unnumbered and unnumberable birds, I am tipped towards the state of confusion which that inchoate twisting swerve so perfectly represents. I freely confess that on the unforgettable occasions when I see 40,000 corvids take flight in one oceanic roar of dark shapes and dark sounds, a part of my sense of joy is the frisson of danger the spectacle excites. Quite simply I am at the limits of what my mind can comprehend or my imagination can articulate’. 

This sums up for me those heart-racing moments that occur when things are on the very edge of being too much, that sense of being overwhelmed with a feeling that you can’t explain. Maybe it’s the moment when the rational mind just stops in the face of something inexplicable, and we’re left wide open and vulnerable. Thunder-struck.

The book, though, is not just about this moment, although like the rooks we swirl around it. It is a love-song to corvids in general, and the rook in particular. I love these birds for their association with Dorset – there was a rookery just behind Mum and Dad’s house, and another one in Dorchester just a stone’s throw from the nursing home where Dad lived, so their chuckling calls transport me back to happier times. Cocker, though, has managed to incorporate both the natural history of the bird, its long relationship with people, and the story of the Yare valley in Norfolk where he lives. He combines the specificity of a particular place and time with a broader context. Here, he is writing about a piece of flint ‘the size of a rabbit’s kidney’ that he has found at Burgh St Peter, near the River Waveney, in the shadow of St Mary’s Church:

‘My piece of flint is itself a kind of church – a small venerable contemplative space, a steel-hard, steel-cold touchstone reminding me that the residence of rooks and humans alike in this place is a thing of extreme transience. The birds have been here perhaps no more than 5,000 years and Neolithic farmers a little longer. The stone, however, which is hardly distinct from the countless other flints glinting across the fields of this landscape, is an immensely ancient treasure at least 70-90 million years old. It’s on my desk as I type these words’. 

Cocker sets himself to the mapping of the roosts and rookeries in his area, and what makes the book so interesting is his curiosity. He asks questions that seem obvious, but to which we don’t really know the answers: why do rooks roost in particular places, and why do the roosts break up? What are the advantages of spending the night together in such huge numbers? What are the reasons for the period of silence that falls just before the birds ascend to the trees? I love this thoughtful rumination on the last of these questions:

I speculate that this ritual silence and the passionate vortex that follows it, have exactly the same function. Although they are opposites in terms of physical input, one a shared stillness, the other a chaos of noise and flight, they are identical in psychological requirement. They pitch each individual bird towards the collective heart. They reconcile the one to the flock. They attune the singleton-rook and jackdaw alike- to the processes of sociability which are at the very heart of its identity as a species. All the survival strategies and life processes of rooks and jackdaws depend upon collective behaviour. Perhaps these rituals at the end of the day are a way of binding them to that destiny, of knitting each individual bird into the shared fabric’. 

As I re-read the book to prepare this piece, I am struck by how much Cocker manages to carry me away, to the landscapes that he’s describing. I too have been stuck on a hill in high winds, trying to spot a bird in the failing light and trying not to notice the sting of horizontal rain billowing into my face. I too love the dusk, the sense of promise as human life heads for home, along with the birds. I am reminded that when she was little, my Mum was sent to a convalescent home (she was born very prematurely and was a sad little scrap of a child). They used to have beds outside for the children in the summer, and she remembered watching the birds going home, and how sad she felt that she couldn’t go home too. And I identified so strongly with this passage, in which Cocker, after describing how his passion for nature, and his daughter’s love for music and drama, had singled them both out as ‘nerdy’ or ‘sad’.

But why is it that people who are absorbed by something are seen as sad? And what licences that particular remark? What strange presumption fortifies the unengaged and the dispassionate to express this scorn for the enthusiast? I was mystified.’

Cocker remarks that, regardless of language or location, there is frequently an instantaneous connection between naturalists when they meet, and I think it’s this passion that unites us. We care in a world where caring is increasingly seen as ‘uncool’, and cynicism is felt to be the only sensible reaction. ‘Crow Country’ takes us on a journey and I found the author to be most excellent company – I felt as if I was on this particular voyage of discovery with him. I love it when people tell me not only what they discovered, but what they still don’t know, because it opens the door for pondering. And there is nothing that I like better than a good ponder. It certainly made me look at rooks with a new interest, and fired my curiosity about other common species. There is so much that we still don’t understand and that is the glory of it.

You can buy Crow Country here (and in many other places too!)



Sparks of Life

Male azure damselfly (Coenagrion puella)

Dear Readers, when the damselflies come back every year, it always feels as if summer has truly arrived. This year there are three of these azure damselfly males, each guarding a distinct area of the pond. They are consummate fliers, and to me they look like sparks, arcing and crackling. When one of the males settles down and is approached by another, he raises his abdomen in what looks like an insect equivalent of a ‘V- sign. No doubt they are waiting for the ladies to turn up, and in the meantime they are getting tetchy and aggravated.

When the females do arrive, they will have green metallic heads and thoraxes: there is  a green form and a rather rarer blue form. The whole mating process always looks a bit confusing – the male grasps the female at the back of the head, and the female moves her abdomen around under the male’s upper abdomen to collect the sperm. Many mating couples may collect at a pond because there is safety in numbers, and predators get confused if there are many choices (as we saw previously with the fledgling starlings). The females will lay their eggs in floating vegetation, of which the pond currently has a fine collection. The ferocious little larva will live for up to two years before climbing up on some vegetation, and gradually wriggling out of its carapace.S/he will then fly off to try to find a mate in the meagre five days of life that he or she has left.

Photo One byBy böhringer friedrich - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Azure damselflies mating (Photo One)

There are many species of blue damselfly in the UK, and the whole thing can be very confusing. Azures, however, are extremely blue, and on the side of their thorax there is a broken line, which you can just about see in the photo below.

Although damselflies don’t have quite the wow-factor of the bigger dragonflies (like the emperor who was trying to lay eggs on my wooden steps a few years ago) they are the most delicate and fairy-like of insects. They are not as agile in the air as a dragonfly is, so they behave more like flycatchers, waiting on a ‘perch’ to fly up and grab a passing insect. If I was one of the tachinid flies that are also haunting the pond I would be a little bit careful.

Tachina fera

These flies are a regular feature around the pond in early summer, and they seem to be another territorial species, seeing off any other flies that approach. The little battles of the garden are so often overlooked, but in truth everyone seems to be sparring for room to live, for mates and above all for the chance to reproduce. These flies are important pollinators of daisies and members of the carrot family, but their larvae are parasites. The female lays her eggs on the foodplant of the larvae of certain moths, such as the gypsy moth (a notorious muncher of pine forests) and the pine beauty (which is rather less voracious). The caterpillar eats the eggs with the leaves, and the single larva that develops eats the poor moth from the inside. The fly has been suggested as a method of bio-control for the gypsy moth, though such plans have a history of having unintended consequences.

This is a very handsome fly though, no?

I often wonder what it would be like to experience the world through the compound eyes of a fly or a damselfly, and my imagination fails. How does the insect put all those images together to form a meaningful picture? What does each tiny lens actually ‘see’? Apparently compound eyes are normally excellent at detecting movement but have low resolution. However, the eyes of the dragonfly family have special zones with slightly different lenses, which do allow the insect to hone in on its prey with great precision. A dragonfly has over 24,000 separate ‘lenses’ in each eye – the eyes almost meet in the middle of the head, as if the animal is wearing a helmet. Just as it is impossible (for me at least) to imagine a colour that doesn’t currently exist, so the world of these creatures feels as difficult to comprehend as that of another planet. And yet, I have been circled by an emperor dragonfly, and have rarely felt so closely inspected by another creature. We might not be able to think ourselves into their world, but there is no doubt in my mind that they have seen us.

Wednesday Weed – Shining Cranesbill

Shining cranesbill (Geranium lucidum)

Dear Readers, it’s so easy to look at every little pink-flowered geranium growing in rocky and disturbed spots and assume that it’s yet more herb robert. Indeed, I think I’d walked past these flowers in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery many times without noticing something very obvious – the leaves are all wrong. The foliage of herb robert is delicate, ferny stuff, while the foliage of this little plant forms a kind of five-pointed leafy ‘hand’. The name ‘shining’ comes from the fresh, glossy leaves which, once you’ve got your eye in, are nothing like those of other geraniums.

Photo One by Amadej Trnkoczy from

Shining cranesbill flower and glossy leaf (Photo One)

Another feature that shining cranesbill shares with herb robert is that the foliage goes fiery red in the autumn – you can see it just beginning to turn in the photo below. It also has those bright red stems that I think of as typical of herb robert. With wild geraniums, the leaves really are your best bet for ID – there are so many little pink-flowered jobs that it becomes very hard otherwise.

Photo Two by By Cwmhiraeth - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Two

Habitat is another feature – herb robert really is the geranium for urban settings, as it seems to pop up in every unattended plant pot and crack in the pavement. Shining cranesbill, like many of the others in the family, is more of a plant of walls and churchyards. It is native to the UK and mainland Europe, Asia and North Africa but, along with herb robert, it has been imported into North America, where it is known as shiny geranium. Here the usual story plays out, with the plant becoming a noxious, unchecked weed that overwhelms native plants in woodland settings. One reason for its success (apart from the lack of insect species to keep it in check) is that the seed is thrown explosively out of the capsule, so the plant can, with successive generations, move up a wall or a tree trunk, or advance up a slope. In fact, considering how well-behaved it is in its native habitat I am stunned to see how enthusiastically shining cranesbill has taken to life in North America, particularly in the Pacific North-West – in the April 17 edition of the Kings County Noxious Weeds Blog, there is this:

‘To quote Ed Alverson, a botanist from Oregon who has extensive experience battling shiny geranium, “this is pretty much the most diabolical invasive plant I’ve ever encountered”. He adds, “In my 3 decades of experience with this species I’ve not seen anyone successfully “control” it, anywhere or any time. Not that it is impossible, I’ve just not seen anyone take it as seriously as is necessary, especially early on”.

And look at this photo of an oak wood infestation in Washington State.

Photo Three from

A shining cranesbill infestation in Washington State, USA (Photo Three)

Now, in the UK it appears that shining cranesbill is a foodplant for the caterpillar of just one moth, known as the annulet (Charissa obscurata). This is a rather subtle moth, coloured in shades of grey and black that give it a rather soot-spattered look. However, it nearly had a place in history: in 1878, an entomologist named Albert Brydges Farn wrote to Charles Darwin, saying that he had found annulet moths with dark grey wings, rather than the usual paler colour – he thought that this might relate to the fact that the chalk cliffs where the moths were found had been darkened by the smoke from the local lime kilns. Alas, Darwin never replied, and so the peppered moth became the poster-child for what became known as ‘industrial melanism’ – the way that evolution acts to favour animals that can blend in more easily with a blackened environment.

Incidentally, an annulet is described as a ‘small band encircling a column’, maybe because of the way that the rings encircle the body? Your guess is every bit as good as mine. I think there must be a whole book to be written on the derivation of moth names.

An annulet moth (Charissa obscurata) From John Curtis’s British Entomology, Volume Six first published in 1824.

Now, I wondered if humans could eat shining cranesbill, as my thoughts during lockdown turn to food rather more often than usual: the answer seems to be ‘who knows?’ because I can find not a single recipe, though it is noted that it isn’t eaten by rabbits or deer, which probably contributes to its invasive qualities across the Atlantic.

Medicinally the plant apparently has uses as a diuretic and astringent (according to the Glossary of Indian Medicinal Plants from 1986) but doesn’t appear to have been much used in the UK, maybe because herb robert was such a popular and widely used herbal remedy.

Apparently shining cranesbill is one of the over 30 species of plant that have the common name ‘bachelor’s buttons’ – it is known by this name in Lancashire, while herb robert bears this moniker in Kent. I can’t imagine that this delicate plant would last very long in anyone’s buttonhole, but maybe the leaves made up for the wilting flower. The name ‘cranesbill’ comes from the shape of the seed capsules, which are said to look like the beak of a bird – in fact ‘geranium’ is a direct translation of the Greek for ‘crane’s bill’.

Photo Four by CC BY-SA 3.0,

The seed dispersal mechanism of Geranium pratense, the meadow cranesbill, showing where the name comes from (Photo Four)

And so, dear readers, a poem. I cannot tell you how much I love this newly-discovered work – it fills me with such longing. Every separate verse feels like a pebble dropped into still water, the ripples spreading out. It feels like something to be savoured slowly, like a fine malt-whisky. See what you think.

Riasg Buidhe by Thomas A. Clark

A visit to the island of Colonsay,
Inner Hebrides, April 1987

There are other lives we might lead, places we might get to know, skills we might acquire.

When we have put distance between ourselves and our intentions, the sensibility comes awake.

Every day should contain a pleasure as simple as walking on the machair or singing to the seals.

The ripples on the beach and the veins in the rocks on the mountain show the same signature.

When we climb high enough we can find patches of snow untouched by the sun, parts of the spirit still intact.

The grand landscapes impress us with their weight and scale but it is the anonymous places, a hidden glen or a stretch of water without a name, that steal the heart.

The mere sight of a meadow cranesbill can open up a wound.

We live in an age so completely self-absorbed that the ability to simply look, to pour out the intelligence through the eyes, is an accomplishment.

You will require a tune for a country road, for hill walking a slow air.

When I climb down from the hill I carry strands of wool and fronds of bracken on my clothing, small barbs of quiet in my mind.

At dawn and again at dusk we feel most acutely the passing of time but at dawn the world is with us while at dusk we stand alone.

The farther we move from habitation, the larger are the stars.

There is a kind of bagpipe and fiddle music, practiced in a gale, which is full of distance and longing.

A common disease of sheep, the result of cobalt deficiency, is known as ‘pine’.

The best amusement in rain is to sit and watch the clouds negotiate the mountain.

Long silences are as proper in good company as a song on a lonely road.

Let everything you do have the clean edge of water lapping in a bay.

In any prevailing wind there are small pockets of quiet: in a rock pool choked with duckweed, in the lee of a cairn, in the rib-cage of a sheep’s carcass.

When my stick strikes a stone, it is a call to order.

The most satisfying product of culture is bread.

In a landscape of Torridonian sandstone and heather moor, green and gold lichens on the naked rock will ignite small explosions of sensation.

Whatever there is in a landscape emerges if we just sit still.

It is not from novelty but from an unbroken tradition that real human warmth can be obtained, like a peat fire that has been rekindled continuously for hundreds of years.

After days of walking on the moor, shoulders, spine and calves become resilient as heather.

The hardest materials are those which display the most obvious signs of weathering.

We can carry a tent, food, clothing or the world on our shoulders, but how light we feel when we lay them down.

Just to look at a beach of grey pebbles can cool the forehead.

On a small island, the feeble purchase that the land obtains between the sea and the sky, the drifting of mist and the intensity of light, unsettles the intellect and opens the imagination to larger and more liquid configurations.

Although the days should extend in a graceful contour, the hours should not be accountable.

A book of poems in the rucksack – that is the relation of art to life.

On a fine day, up on the heights, with heat shimmering from the rocks, I can stretch out on my back and watch all the distances dance.

The duty of the traveller, wherever he finds himself, is always to keep faith with the air.

We should nurture our own loneliness like an Alpine blossom.

Solitude and affection go well together – to work alone the whole day and then in the evening sit round a table with friends.

To meet another person on a walk is like coming to a river.

In the art of the great music, the drone is eternity, the tune tradition, the performance the life of the individual.

It is on bare necessity that lyricism flourishes best, like a cushion of moss campion on granite.

When the people are gone, and the house is a ruin, for long afterwards there may flourish a garden of daffodils.

The routines we accept can strangle us but the rituals we choose give renewed life.

When the lark sings and the air is still, I sometimes feel I could reach over and take the island in my hand like a stone.

Photo CreditsPhoto One by Amadej Trnkoczy from

Photo Two by By Cwmhiraeth – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Three from

Photo Four by CC BY-SA 3.0,

Sunday Quiz – Bits of Birds – The Answers

Goodness, how well we all did this week! Our joint winners, with 16 out of 16, were Sarah and Fran and Bobby Freelove – congratulations to all. But in honourable joint second place were Alittlebitoutoffocus and Anne – 14 out of 16, and the one place where both of you tripped up was getting your sparrows and finches the wrong way round, a very understandable blip. Thank you all for playing, and if you have any particular preferences for next week’s quiz, let me know, otherwise I shall devise something fiendish.

The answers…..

1) Goldfinch

2) Juvenile Robin (cheeky I know)

3) Starling

4) Shelduck

5) Grey Heron

6) Woodpigeon

7) Jackdaw

8) Long-tailed tit

And now for the bird families. A bit more challenging I thought!

Spinifex pigeon IGeophaps plumifera) by By Andreas Trepte - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

1) Spinifex pigeon IGeophaps plumifera) – Pigeon family

Photo Two - Blue-rumped parrot Psittinus cyanurus by By Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE - Blue-rumped Parrot Psittinus cyanurus, CC BY-SA 2.0,

2) Blue-rumped parrot Psittinus cyanurus – Parrot family

Photo Three by By Jim McCulloch - Flickr: Chimney swift Chaetura pelagica) overhead, CC BY 2.0,

3) Chimney swift Chaetura pelagica) – Swift family

Photo Four by By Alastair Rae from London, United Kingdom - Black Woodpecker, CC BY-SA 2.0, Black woodpecker (Dryocopus martius)

4) Black woodpecker (Dryocopus martius) – Woodpecker family

Photo Five by By Nigel Voaden from UK - Kurrichane Thrush, Sakania, DRC, CC BY-SA 2.0, Kurricane Thrush Turdus libonyana

5) Kurricane Thrush Turdus libonyana – thrush family

Photo Six by By DickDaniels ( - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Sudan Golden Sparrow Passer luteus

6) Sudan Golden Sparrow Passer luteus – Sparrow family

Lawrences goldfinch (Spinus lawrencei)

7) Lawrences goldfinch (Spinus lawrencei) – Finch family

By J.M.Garg - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, White-browed wagtail Motacilla maderaspatensis

8) White-browed wagtail Motacilla maderaspatensis – Wagtail family

So, how did we all get on? I think some families are much easier to identify than others, and with some, seeing a video would probably have made it much easier (for the wagtail, for example). Anyhow, all revelation, comments and requests are greatly valued, as always. In the meantime, see you tomorrow!


A Drop of the Sweet Stuff

Buddleia leaf

Dear Readers, today I decided to do a bit of pruning on my two front-garden buddleias. I know it’s not quite the right time of year, but the wind had snapped a branch off of one of them, and the other was starting to hang over the pavement, making it difficult for people to walk past. However, while one of them was in perfect health, the other was not.

Leaves coated in honeydew

My left-hand buddleia has leaves that are sticky and wet with honeydew, the result of a positive plague of aphids, both green and black. I had noticed that the lid of the wheelie bin underneath the shrub was tacky, but I hadn’t really noticed the degree to which the plant had been attacked.

So, what’s going on? It all starts when a winged greenfly lands on a plant. First, it tests the sap of the plant by boring a hole – it has sharp mouthparts but, much as a mosquito injects an anti-coagulant so that our blood doesn’t clot while she is feeding on us, so an aphid injects a substance that stops the sap from coagulating.

Aphids are true bugs, and plant sap is their only food. Furthermore, they feed ‘passively’ – once they’ve tapped into the plant’s juices, sap is forced into the animal’s stomach purely by the higher pressure in the veins of the plant. Plant sap is not a complete food, because it has no protein, but the aphid has gut bacteria to help with that problem. To regulate pressure, the aphid excretes honeydew, which is what is causing the stickiness.

Photo One by By Amada44 - Own work, CC BY 4.0,

Aphid producing honeydew (Photo One)

The honeydew is attactive to many sugar-starved insects. Ants will ‘farm’ aphids, drinking the honeydew and carrying the bugs from one plant to another. Some butterflies, such as the hairstreaks, the holly blue, the speckled wood and the white admiral , use honeydew as part of their adult diet. I have seen honeybees licking leaves that are splattered with the sugary secretion, and many solitary bees are also attracted to the stuff. Sadly, if you have ever parked your car under a lime or sycamore tree in summer and have gone away on holiday, you will be giving it a good scrub when you come back. Furthermore, there are types of fungus that grow on the honeydew, disfiguring the plant further. Finally, aphids may introduce plant viruses into a plant with their first bite, even if they then don’t settle and start to feed.

Photo Two by By Kent Loeffler -, Public Domain,

Wheat aphid showing its biting mouthparts.(Photo Two)

As you probably know, aphids can perform parthenogenesis – that is, they can have young without mating. Each new aphid is a clone of her mother, and already has the embryo of the next generation maturing within her. In the course of her lifetime, an aphid born in spring could have twenty to forty generations of young in a single season, literally billions of offspring. No wonder my poor buddleia is looking a little overwhelmed.

Photo Three by By MedievalRich, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Aphid giving birth to one of her many, many babies (Photo Three)

Fortunately, aphids are the hamburgers of the insect world, preyed upon by pretty much everybody. I found a couple of ladybirds on the buddleia and a small brown hoverfly larvae. There are also twelve species of parasitoid wasps, tiny creatures only a tenth of an inch long, who feed exclusively on aphids – in fact, some of them are used in commercial greenhouses to control greenfly and blackfly numbers without having to resort to chemicals.

Photo Three by By CSIRO, CC BY 3.0,

I wondered why the goldfinches that I saw a few days ago were returning to my buddleia over and over again, and now I suspect that they were munching away on the aphids. 83% of the diet of the American goldfinch is apparently comprised of aphids, so why should the UK one be any different? Blue tits will also work over a shrub in search of small, squidgy creatures to feed to their offspring – caterpillars are the favourite, but a beakful of aphids will do at a pinch.

Goldfinch on the buddleia.

Still, I do wonder why one of my buddleia is a sticky mess, and the other is pristine. One is in full sun for most of the day, so maybe it’s healthier anyway? Who knows. What I will probably do is get my long-suffering husband to give the shrub a good burst with the hose pipe next time he’s doing the watering – hopefully that will at least give the aphids a shock. Lots of other methods have been tried: various chemicals (which I won’t entertain, of course – I don’t want to kill off everything that feeds on the greenfly), the insect predators already mentioned, and traps – apparently aphids are attracted to the colour green (no surprise there) so I imagine these traps are about as green as you can get. I think my main aim will be to see if I can bolster the health of my honeydew-covered buddleia – maybe it isn’t getting enough water, especially during the current semi-drought conditions. I will let you know how I get on!

Interestingly, humans have also been fed on honeydew, both in the form of honeydew honey, from bees who feed on the stuff, and in the form of manna – the solidified honeydew found on tamarisk and some other trees. What effect it has on humans is unknown: I just had a tiny taste from the buddleia, and the honeydew tasted, well, sweetish, as you might expect, but not as delicious as maple syrup. But see what Samuel Taylor Coleridge has to say about it, in Kubla Khan. If I can get hold of some Milk of Paradise, I could be flashing and floating all over the place.

And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
‘And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Sunday Quiz – Bits of Birds

Before we start today’s quiz, were you able to identify the bird calls from yesterday? They were, in order: Eurasian curlew, Eurasian skylark, and song thrush. Some of my favourites – this blog is clearly all about self-indulgence. Onwards!

Dear Readers, for this week’s quiz I wanted to create something that could be enjoyed by all my readers, not just my UK ones. But what to do? In the end, I have settled for doing two separate quizzes. In the first one, the challenge is to identify British birds from just a ‘bit’ of them – I’ve made it multiple choice, but be careful! It might not be as easy as you’d think.

For the second part, I am working on the theory that we all have some idea of what a ‘typical’ bird from a family looks like – we could all probably recognise a pigeon, for example, whatever the species was. Or could we? Let’s have a go, and bonus points to people who cannot only identify the bird family, but also the species.

Anyhoo, part one! Identify the bird from the ‘bit’. Apologies for the grainy photos, but I think they give a certain Impressionistic ambience (that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!) Have fun!










a) Robin

b) Grey heron

c) Goldfinch

d) Jackdaw

e) Long-tailed tit

f) Woodpigeon

g) Shelduck

h) Starling.

And now, let’s see how good we are at putting non-UK birds into their correct families! All of these birds have UK relations. In other words, what makes a duck a duck (though there are no ducks today!) Extra points for the species.

Spinifex pigeon IGeophaps plumifera) by By Andreas Trepte - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,


Photo Two - Blue-rumped parrot Psittinus cyanurus by By Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE - Blue-rumped Parrot Psittinus cyanurus, CC BY-SA 2.0,


Photo Three by By Jim McCulloch - Flickr: Chimney swift Chaetura pelagica) overhead, CC BY 2.0,


Photo Four by By Alastair Rae from London, United Kingdom - Black Woodpecker, CC BY-SA 2.0, Black woodpecker (Dryocopus martius)


Photo Five by By Nigel Voaden from UK - Kurrichane Thrush, Sakania, DRC, CC BY-SA 2.0, Kurricane Thrush Turdus libonyana


Photo Six by By DickDaniels ( - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Sudan Golden Sparrow Passer luteus


Lawrences goldfinch


By J.M.Garg - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, White-browed wagtail Motacilla maderaspatensis


Your choices are:

a) Finch (Carduelidae)

b) Pigeon (Columbidae)

c) Wagtail (Motacillidae)

d) Parrot (Psitticidae)

e) Sparrow (Passeridae)

f) Woodpecker (Picidae)

g) Thrush (Turdidae)

h) Swift (Apodidae)

Answers in the comments please, and as usual, if you don’t want to be influenced by speedier responders, write your answers down on a bit of paper first (old-school I know). Good luck! Answers on Tuesday, but if you want to be marked, please get your answers in before 8 p.m. on Monday (UK time). Thank you.

The Ecology of Sound

Dear Readers, as you will have heard my garden has been completely smothered with fledgling starlings this week. From about 5 a.m. there is a wall of sound, which you would think would attract every predator from miles around. Strangely enough, I think that even the hunters find it all a bit baffling – a very handsome black cat appeared and  was bombarded with such a barrage of screaming alarm calls that he gave up looking sneaky and just walked nonchalantly down the steps and past the pond, as if killing things was the very last thing on his mind. The magpie and the sparrowhawk have been notable by their absence, and in short, I think that this year there are so many fledglings that no one can make up their mind which one to eat.

To get an idea of the cacophony (and this is a very poor sample) have a look here.

Anyhow, all this got me thinking, and so I was glad to attend a very fine talk on Passive Acoustic Monitoring, given by Richard Beason for the Field Studies Council. You can watch the whole thing here. Passive Acoustic Monitoring is the name given to leaving a sound recording device somewhere in nature, and coming back later to download the results.

Increasingly, these devices are being used to record soundscapes – the whole range of sounds that can be heard in an environment, from the wind and rain through the calls of frogs and birds and crickets, to the sound of ancient timber being cut down by a chainsaw (oops). When you’re done, you can play the recording back, but many also come with spectrograms, which enable you to get a visual representation of all the racket.

Credit: Spectrogram©MichaelTowsey&AnthonyTruskinger,QueenslandUniversityofTechnology

One of the most interesting revelations, for me anyway, was that in a habitat, the inhabitants not only occupy geographical niches, but also aural niches. I’d never thought about it before, but if all the animals were calling at the same time, no one would ever hear anyone else. The way that it works is that different animals call at different frequencies, at different times, and often in different rhythms, so that everyone gets their share of the ‘sound stage’. Even in the UK we can see how this works, with soprano and common pipistrelle being distinguished mainly by the fact that their calls are at different frequencies. This way it’s unlikely that bats of different species will end up breeding together.

Photo One from

Calls of the common pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) (Photo One)

Photo Two from

Calls of the soprano pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pygmaeus) (Photo Two)

What PAM allows you to do is to see what’s living in a particular place, and compare it to similar habitat elsewhere. Firstly, of course, you have to identify all the sounds, which can be a very demanding task. From just looking at the sonogram, what bird do you think this is?


And if you’re stuck, you can have a listen to the bird below.

Once everything has been identified (and you’d better hope that there aren’t any starlings beat-boxing, or lyre birds pretending to be a camera on automatic ) it’s interesting to see how the spectrograms compare between, say, virgin rainforest and a palm oil plantation. And indeed spectrograms are being used in conservation in a variety of ways – in the Central African Republic, placing acoustic monitoring devices in the forest has led to the discovery of an important area where the rare African forest elephants gather to find minerals. In the diagram below, the blue dots are monitoring devices, and the red dots are the mineral licks. The discovery of the one in the south will make it easier to protect this area, and to think about how to create a corridor to the ones in the north.

Photo Three from

The blue dots are the monitoring devices, the red dots are mineral licks. (Photo Three)

Perhaps the most interesting thing, though, is how PAM can be used to both identify a problem, and suggest a solution. For example, in 2012 it was discovered that healthy coral reefs sound rather like popcorn, with a great chorus of fish chomping and calling and snapping- shrimps walloping things.

Other fish use these sounds to orientate themselves and to find a new reef, because a busy reef is a safer reef, and it is also a place where a fish can find something to eat and someone to  mate with. But after a coral bleaching event, the reef is silent, and even after it starts to recover, the fish don’t return because they can’t hear it. So the answer appears to be what’s known as ‘acoustic enrichment’ – putting down underwater speakers which play the sounds of a healthy reef. Slowly but surely, the fish return, and make their own sounds, and after a while the speakers aren’t needed anymore. I find it fascinating how this whole cycle has been identified and how imaginative the solution is. In these times of crisis, I get a real lift from every piece of creativity that’s used to help preserve our beleaguered planet. Who would have thought that a couple of speakers would have increased the diversity and number of fish on a damaged reef by 50%? Furthermore, once the fish have found the reef they tend to stay, and their activities help to build the ecosystem of the reef. You can read the full story here.

PAM has been used in many other ways: to monitor the change in the population of Leach’s petrel in Northern Canada after the removal of Arctic foxes, and to estimate the number of anti-poaching patrols required in Central African Republic by recording the number of gunshots. It really is a area with endless applications, and a great addition to our environmental  toolbox. In lockdown, the sounds of nature become much more prominent, a whole new way of appreciating the world. Let’s hope that we continue to appreciate them once things get back to whatever will pass for normal in the future.

And here, just to round off this very sound-based post, here are three of my favourite birdsongs. All of the singers used to be common, but none of them are now. See if you know what they are! Answers tomorrow.




Friday Books – Wildlife Gardening

Dear Readers, today we have three books that have been indispensable to me in my endeavour to make my garden a haven for wildlife. First up is Adrian Thomas’s Gardening for Wildlife, a superb all-round book on everything from the species that you might see to how to create a particular environment.

Thomas describes the different requirements for different species, but also points out that it’s difficult to actually ‘attract’ wildlife to your garden (though having been awoken at 5.30 this morning by the starlings I’m not sure I’m convinced!) His point, though, is to cherish what you already have locally – there is no point in growing flowers for a butterfly that was last seen in your area in 1786 for example. The book is full of fascinating facts: for example, speckled wood butterflies much prefer the honeydew secreted by aphids to any flower.

There are lists of flowers for bees, butterflies and moths, and these are by season too. There’s stuff on ponds and bat boxes, but also on making your own woodland garden or area of scrub or bog.  In particular, I like that when Thomas recommends a plant, he gives you an idea about the variety that works best, so you don’t waste a lot of time on something unsuitable. If I only had room for one book this would definitely be it.

This is a great, great book – I heard Jan Miller-Klein speak at a meeting of the Wildlife Gardening Forum, and she is such an enthusiast. This book is a real labour of love: Miller-Klein doesn’t just look at planting for adult butterflies, but also considers their foodplants. She has ideas for planting an insectary, which encourages predatory invertebrates such as lady birds and spiders, and a dyer’s garden with weld and woad and all sorts of exciting plants. There are ideas for a moraine garden, and for containers and raised beds.

The beneficial plants are laid out by season, so that you can make sure that there’s always something going on for pollinators.

She doesn’t forget dragonfliies, beetles and moths either.

And at the front of the book there’s a quick gallop through the best plants for each time of year. I would never have thought of hemp agrimony for the pondside in my garden without Jan Miller-Klein, and it’s probably the most popular plant that I grow with the butterflies and bees.

And here’s an old favourite.

This book is such a delight. It concentrates mainly on the behaviour of birds, and I learnt a lot from it. I had no idea that the male wren builds lots of ‘starter homes’ in his territory to attract the ladies, and then abandons each one to get on with rearing the youngsters on her own. And starlings will lay eggs in the nests of their neighbours when they aren’t looking. And a small number of unpaired male swallows will perform infanticide if a female is widowed or unhappy with her partner. Goodness! The shenanigans is really something to behold.

The illustrations, by Peter Partington, are lovely too. This is a book that aims to increase the richness of our understanding of the creatures closest to us, and I am always dipping into it.

Dominic Couzens has done a number of books for the RSPB, but somehow this is the most charming.

So, those are my favourite wildlife gardening books, though I have a great pile of books still to read. Dave Goulson, who wrote the excellent ‘Sting in the Tale’ about bumblebees, has a new book called ‘The Garden Jungle’ which I got for Christmas and still haven’t read, so i think this is a subject that will bear some revisiting. Let me know what your favourite garden wildlife books are, I am always keen to add to my book pile!